Mily Balakirev: Symphony no. 1 in C major,

performed (again) by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Igor Golovschin

I have to say with this symphony that, while I don’t care much for the man who wrote it (after preparing this week’s article on him), of the first few symphonies we’ll be discussing in this series, this was the one that stuck with me the most, the only one I found humming or thinking about later.
I should also note that while this piece is labeled in the tags as 1864, it wasn’t finished and premiered until 1898. The reason I included it early, where I did, instead of using its premiere date (which would put this post somewhere toward the end of November in the chronology) is mostly because of the influence that Balakirev had on the members of ‘the five’ and the cultivation of Russian music in general, regardless of how indecisive or troubled he was about his own compositions. It’s also a sentiment I’ve come across more than once that this is one of his better-known works, considered better than the second symphony, so I felt it fitting to talk about it before we get around to some of the other Russians.
The orchestra is maybe slightly larger than usual, with three of each of flutes, clarinets and trombones, an oboe and English horn, tuba, harps. It’s nothing compared to what would come half a century later, but it’s notable. There was also a revision at some point along the way but the publisher mixed up or didn’t mark the revised copy (no ‘save as’ back then) and apparently this has caused some confusion.
In any case, it might be ‘inaccurate’ to make this assertion, but in some of the opening of the first movement and a few other places, along with Balakirev’s apparent penchant for hesitating to publish his works, Brahms does come to mind. While some call Sergei Taneyev the Russian Brahms, some things make me think of Balakirev a bit in that way, not to mention his economy of material in this work, but any likeness is neither here nor there. Perhaps it’s just the bigness of this symphony and the fact that it took him decades to publish it. Moving on. (except for the small note that this Chandos program note makes that when Balakirev finally did conduct the work publicly, it also just so happened to be his last public appearance as a conductor. Interesting).
The first movement revolves tightly around the two
subjects presented in the exposition, one a more dramatic, aggressive Russian thing, the second a lyrical, sweet, sweeping rich contrasting melody, and while there’s lots of interest to the movement, it always stays quite close to these two ideas, a well-balanced, effective use of material for this movement, and really for the entire piece (again, Brahms? but not really).
The second movement is a lively-ish scherzo with a quieter trio section. For someone really trying to be distinctly Russian in his music, this piece sounds less Russian and more just generally foreign, but not not German. Does that make sense? Last week’s scherzo didn’t feel like such a traditional scherzo, while this movement feels like what would happen if Bruckner had made a trip to Russia and stayed for a winter and been commissioned to write something. It feels like quite a traditional scherzo: it has that driving, almost relentless triplet rhythm that pushes the movement forward, with interaction from different parts of the orchestra, who take turns singing their different parts. Woodwinds play the melody with pizzicato strings, and then strings take over with ornamentation and accents in woodwinds, and there are passages with big bold brass. This is a solid, short scherzo movement, the shortest of the symphony, but just like that, once we get past the lyrical, almost soothing trio, the scherzo returns and it’s suddenly over. Surprisingly, after all that racket and excitement, the piece ends quietly, dying down to nothing and bringing us into the andante, the slow and longest movement of the symphony.
This movement might be the big blockbuster melody of the piece, and Balakirev certainly makes full use of a pretty tune. It really is gorgeous: broad, spacious sounds, woodwinds over shimmery strings, in no hurry to go anywhere, just singing. The only problem is after about the halfway mark, I’ve had about enough. It’s gorgeous and everything, but there comes this moment, almost exactly halfway through the movement, where you think that’s it, and I’d be just as happy if it were. The movement is in ternary form and has a (slightly) contrasting middle section. Aside from that, it’s just this Rachmaninoff-like soaring big melodic tune that lasts for more than thirteen minutes. It certainly shows Balakirev’s lyrical abilities, and obviously any association with Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky would be the other way around, since M.B. came first. But that was my thought when listening to this movement: Rachmaninoff. So is there something lyrical here, some orchestration technique or voicing or something that makes this sound now so quintessentially Romantically Russian? I don’t know, but it certainly sounds like it. After much lyricism, we reach the final movement.
Without pause, we are snuck into the final movement of the piece, a lively rondo (I think?), and this is the first time something smacks you in the face as truly exotic, one of the subjects a few minutes in, played in cellos. It suddenly feels like we’ve been dropped into some nomadic Gypsy tribe somewhere, listening to their folk music, and this is an exciting development, something really truly new to set this symphony apart. The subjects used here are all really solid, as can be said of the entire symphony, and they’re put to effective use.
It’s a solid, logical, well-constructed symphony, but it makes me think a few things:
For one, it is enjoyable. Why is it then, that among Russian symphonies, this work seems to have been overshadowed by almost everything that came after it? Why are performances of this work so (relatively) rare?
Well, remember that although he started writing it in 1864, he didn’t premiere it until more than three decades later. In that time, he’d had a nervous breakdown, held a few teaching posts, worked at a railroad, and gotten back to music, and in the meantime, much music came and stayed: Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, even Rachmaninoff’s (initially very unsuccessful) first symphony. One can imagine that a work like this (assuming that the work in its initial conception was identical, if not very close to the ultimately-premiered version) would have had great influence and success if published and premiered in the 1860s instead of the 1890s…. and then, by extension, one wonders how much Balakirev may have been influenced in his revision process by those who came after him. Having heard what Russian music eventually became, did he incorporate these now-Russian ideas into his work? Who’s to say? Not me, but it’s the kind of thing I think about listening to a work like this, and in thinking of these things, I also think that perhaps it is more than just a side note that I’m sticking this piece where I did today based on it’s original date of inception rather than completion (as I did and will do with the other works in this series). It may reflect more of what Russian music became rather than what Balakirev initially intended it to be, but… will we ever know? In any case, it’s a solid work, one in which the composer’s indecision or indecisiveness perhaps weakened his own stance as a composer. Regardless, he remains one of the most important figures in the early history of Russian music, which was the main reason I counted his first symphony when I did. Perhaps more influential as a mentor and professor (despite his own deficiencies), this is still a respectable work, but one that has inevitably been overshadowed by what is to come later, which are things I am even more excited to discuss. See you next week.
(Additional reference for Balakirev’s works here)

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